Clipping Sherlock’s Wings

Mr Holmes

I just caught the movie “Mr. Holmes,” which purports to be a story about the “real” Sherlock Holmes when he is in retirement. It has a wonderful cast, a beautiful production design, and sensitive direction by Bill Condon – and it’s a lugubrious piece of sentimental tripe. Sherlock Holmes is a superhero of logic and the human mind, but “Mr. Holmes” is a stealth attack against these virtues. Camouflaged as an homage to a beloved pop-cultural icon, it actually turns Sherlock into the Tin Man, and then gives him a heart, while taking away his brain.

“Mr. Holmes” gives us no fiendishly clever crimes or charismatic villains. Instead we get two rather drab little domestic tragedies, and one rather drab little domestic drama. Set just after World War II, when Holmes is about 90 years old and slowly losing his mind to senile dementia, the movie slowly cycles through the following story lines:

  1. Sherlock slowly befriends the son of his housekeeper, and teaches him how to care for honeybees.
  2. Sherlock visits Japan in search of an herb that can cure senile dementia. His host is a fan of the “fictionalized” accounts of Sherlock’s cases that Dr. Watson wrote.
  3. Sherlock strives to remember his last case, some 20 or 30 years earlier. Something about it caused him to retire from detective work. He does indeed remember, and the case involved a young wife in despair after two miscarriages.

Let’s start with that last case. It arrives shortly after Watson has departed to begin married life, when Sherlock is hired by a frustrated young husband. The man’s wife talks to her dead babies, and might be visiting a music teacher/medium who encourages that sort of thing. The intolerant young husband wants that to stop, of course. Sherlock discovers that the wife is not visiting the suspect teacher, but is rather planning her own suicide. He and the wife have one meeting, and one conversation. He tells her he knows what she intends to do. She responds with something like a marriage proposal, in which two lonely people can share – something. He gently declines, and though she seems to reject suicide and pours out the poison she has in her purse, she soon after throws herself in front of a speeding train. This causes Sherlock to sink into a depressive guilt so profound he retires and moves to the country. (!?!) Towards the end of the movie he comes to think he should have saved the poor woman by telling her some comforting lies. (?!?)

If you are gay, you’ve met, or know someone who has met, a guy who wants to move in and get married after one date. That’s a red flag, and the sensible course of action is retreat. But the addled mind of “Mr. Holmes” seems to believe that one good cry with a new acquaintance will solve the poor woman’s despair. It believes that Sherlock can merely pretend to accept her proposal, and save her without actually taking on the momentous responsibility that’s required. Need I say that this is bonkers? What’s more, the Sherlock Holmes I know would get this.

Onto drab domestic tragedy number two. The father of Sherlock’s Japanese host deserted the family some 20 years earlier. The man had been in England, and he had sent his son a copy of Dr. Watson’s stories about Sherlock. He also sent a letter that said after meeting with the real Sherlock, he had decided not to return to Japan. Now that he has the real Sherlock as a guest, the wounded man demands an explanation – and he gets the truth. Which is that Sherlock never met the man, and that the letter was the lie. As a tactless aside, Sherlock calls the father a coward. (Super smart people like Sherlock never have any tact, of course. They are too rational for it.) But once back in England, after his epiphany about lying to the despairing young wife, Sherlock writes his Japanese host a letter. In it he claims that he did indeed meet with the faithless father. He explains that the man had been volunteering for some sort of secret service to His Majesty’s Government, and thus unable to ever again see his family. (!?!) So at Sherlock’s suggestion he writes to tell them goodbye – without any real explanation. (!?!)

I am again non-plussed. Telling a Japanese man in 1946 that his father abandoned him for service to a foreign government would have been of dubious therapeutic value. So says I. For one, Japanese culture takes loyalty to the home team very seriously, and for two, it had just gone to war with Great Britain. Speaking of the war, guess where Sherlock and his young host search for that medicinal herb? Hiroshima! In fact, they dig up the precious plant within site of ground zero – no worries about radiation poisoning for them!

Why Hiroshima? I’m not sure, but I suspect the movie, and the book it is based on, want a cheap way to establish their moral seriousness. Hiroshima is an easy shorthand for “war is bad.” Yet the complicated history of that terrible tragedy is still a fraught subject, and “Mr. Holmes” does nothing at all to address it. Instead, we get a quick scene where Sherlock reacts in naive dismay to the sight of some radiation burns. Again, who is this man? Sherlock would have lived in England through two long, bitter, hard-fought world wars. I cannot believe this is the first time he would have come face to face with the ghastly damage they inflicted. And here’s another point – if Sherlock is kind-hearted enough to gasp at the wounds of a stranger, how come he brutally calls his host’s father a coward?

I won’t go into Sherlock’s friendship with the young son of his housekeeper, because while it is pleasant, it is pointless. Nor will I talk about the bee keeping, because I don’t know what the hell that was all about. Rather, I’ll zip forward to the final image, where Sherlock makes a little stone funeral arrangement to dead friends and relatives and starts praying over it – for now that he is approaching death and slowly losing his mind, now that he has humbly understood the importance of feelings over facts, he finally appreciates……God?

Post Script

“Mr. Holmes” is based on the novel “A Slight Trick Of The Mind,” by Mitch Cullen. I have not read this book, but after I saw the movie I suspected the author was a conservative Catholic – what with the undead unborn babies, the trauma over suicide, and the faith in the healing power of lies. Turns out I was wrong, because on a Facebook post where he (justly) rants against Kim Davis, Cullen says he isn’t a Christian. But he is an American, so perhaps his distrust of logical intelligence is merely cultural, and not religious. I also discovered that he and his partner (maybe husband) Peter I. Chang live part-time in Tokyo. This explains the mysterious inclusion of a Japan story line. Alas, it does not justify it. Still, I wish Mitch and Peter a happy life together!


Good Morals Aren’t Based On God

We Want You All

Last week three dramatic flame-outs highlighted the eye-watering hypocrisy, self-serving cruelty, and undemocratic values of the “Faith & Family” crowd.

First up was Fox News host and staunch Catholic Bill O’Reilly, who just lost a bitter custody dispute with his ex-wife. (What’s a staunch Catholic doing divorcing his wife? You got me there.) Gawker reported that court testimony revealed one of Bill’s daughters had witnessed him dragging her mother down a flight of stairs by the neck. Interesting behavior for a man who, according to, once said this, “The measure of a decent human being is how he or she treats the defenseless.” Also interesting is this comment from Grace Vuoto’s mostly positive review of O’Reilly’s 2008 memoir for the conservative Washington Times:

There are omissions, too. His relationships with women, apart from references to his mother and the nuns, are largely unmentioned. He is silent about his marriage and children. Readers are left to wonder to what extent the traditional values he champions pervade his personal and family life. In this respect, the book is incomplete.


Next up was Matthew Makela, a Lutheran pastor in Michigan. A married man with five children, he publicly endorsed the idea that same-sex attraction was a sin akin to alcoholism, and defined gay marriage as a threat to the family. Then posted images and comments from his Grindr account where he cruised the web looking for hook-ups with other men. This forced his resignation from the church, and it also inspired two members of his congregation to publicly accuse him of bigotry and cruelty. Jennifer Kish and her teenage son Tyler spoke on local TV and charged that Makela had earlier tried to shame and frighten Tyler into staying in the closet. Makela had warned the teenager that if he insisted on embracing a “homosexual lifestyle” he might as well kill himself because he was going to go to hell. (On Grindr Makela described himself as a top who likes to cuddle.)

Finally, we have Josh Duggar, the oldest son of the very evangelical family that stars in the wildly popular, if just suspended, reality TV show “19 Kids And Counting.” Thanks to some intrepid reporting by In Touch magazine, we now know that 2 years before the family became celebrities a 14 going on 15-year-old Josh sexually molested a number of very young girls, some of whom were his sisters. What followed was a long cover-up by his parents, and it is a sordid tale indeed. Jim Bob and Michelle turned to people in their religious community to give Josh lectures and informal therapy. One was Bill Gothard who ran a Christian “treatment” center. In 2014 he resigned over allegations that he had sexually harassed at least 30 women. (Hobby Lobby owner and billionaire David Green provided crucial funding for the center, reports Raw Story.) Another was a state trooper who is now serving a 56 year prison term for child pornography. In his public apology, Josh said that his parents helped arrange counseling for his victims (and sisters), but no details about what that entailed are known. However, we do know that the whole happy family continued to live in the same house as the TV cameras rolled.

This is a matter of public concern because the Duggars have used their celebrity to promote themselves as role models and campaign for the right to discriminate based on Christian beliefs. Until the scandal broke, Josh, now a family man himself, worked as the executive director of FRC Action, the lobbying arm of the Family Research Council. It’s mission is to “advance faith, family and freedom in public policy and the culture from a Christian worldview.” And here’s a typical statement by Robert Knight, its director of cultural studies, “Gaining access to children has been a long-term goal of the homosexual movement.”

The Duggars have also been involved in presidential politics, and have enthusiastically endorsed their ex-governor, Mike Huckabee. He in turn has enthusiastically endorsed them, saying at one point that they are an “example of something that’s wholesome and wonderful.” So invested is Huckabee in the Duggars, that after the scandal broke he doubled down and defended them on Facebook:

“[My wife] Janet and I love Jim Bob and Michelle and their entire family. They are no more perfect than any family, but their Christian witness is not marred in our eyes because following Christ is not a declaration of our perfection, but of HIS perfection.”

So now this “wholesome and wonderful” family is “no more perfect than any family”! But that doesn’t really matter, because it’s all about God and HIS perfection. Which shows that Huckabee’s real concern is defending the idea that America should be a Christian theocracy. He elaborated on this idea a couple of weeks ago when he officially entered the race for the 2016 presidential election:

“But we’ve lost our way morally…and are now threatening the foundation of religious liberty by criminalizing Christianity in demanding that we abandon Biblical principles of natural marriage. Many of our politicians have surrendered to the false god of judicial supremacy, which would allow black-robed and unelected judges the power to make law and enforce it … The Supreme Court is not the Supreme Being, and they can’t overturn the laws of nature or of nature’s God.”

Painting the Supreme Court as some sort of Inquisition is kind of funny, but he’s serious about overthrowing our democratic and secular government in the name of the “laws” of “nature’s God.” Presumably we’ll need some sort of priesthood to interpret those laws for us, and Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, no doubt feels eminently qualified for such a post. Ayatollah Huckabee for president!

Mysterious Favorites

Here’s a wonderful quote from an article Teju Cole recently wrote for The New Yorker:

“Few things are more mysterious than someone else’s favorite film. To hear it named is to be puzzled. You appreciate its merits but not how it can be preferable to all others. Perhaps your favorite film isn’t the one that you like best but the one that likes you best. It confirms you on the first encounter, and goes on to shape you in some irreversible way. Often, you first see it when you’re young, but not too young, and on each subsequent viewing it is a home to which you return.”

Dolce & Gabbana & The Italian Freakout

By Italian I really mean Catholic. And I am referring to the recent comments by gay fashion designers Dolce & Gabbana that “We oppose gay adoptions. The only family is the traditional one…No chemical offsprings and rented uterus: life has a natural flow, there are things that should not be changed.”  (This is a translation into English I found in an article at The Telegraph.) I’d support Elton John’s angry call to boycott the D&G brand, if only I could afford it in the first place.

So no boycott for me, but maybe there’s a chance for some self-promotion, as the D&G comments reminded me of a movie review I wrote some years ago! It is the Italian beefsteak epic The Giant of Metropolis from 1961, and it is practically a manifesto of the reactionary ethos that D&G remain loyal to. A bizarre re-telling of the Atlantis myth, it has evil king Yotar offending nature by attempting to transplant the brain of his father into the head of his 12-year-old son. This and other confusing schemes apparently leads to “Unforeseen developments in the orbiting of the planets have upset in a most serious manner the normal equilibrium of the forces of the inter-planetary scale!” We also have Obro, an amiable muscleman who gets captured and tortured by Yotar. This somehow convinces Yotar’s rebellious daughter Mercede that Obro is some sort of Christ figure who is everywhere, invisible, and invincible. So she sets Obro free, and at the first opportunity falls into his arms and pleads “Show me what it is to live Obro!” Which is he presumably does, after the fade out.


To quote the movie itself:

…When the scientists of Metropolis attempted to penetrate the secret of death, nature rebelled, causing universal destruction…

…love alone triumphed…

…and remained the sole source of life…

And remember, they were this upset back in 1961, long before the concept of “gay adoption” was born! My review of the whole confounding movie can be found at The Monster Shack web site:


An unnatural mass wedding ceremony held in Metropolis, before it is destroyed.



Poor Lana and Andy Wachowski. After the beating they took with Cloud Atlas, they’ve just dropped another bomb with Jupiter Ascending. Here’s a typical reaction, from Nick Schager writing for The Daily Beast, “Jupiter Ascending, from The Matrix masterminds Lana and Andy Wachowski, is a stew of sci-fi blockbuster cinema clichés drenched in high-tech razzle-dazzle.” I’ve written a lot of screeds against movie crap lately, but here I’d like to defend the Wachowskis, up to a point. Jupiter Ascending is a mixed bag to be sure, but I don’t think it really falls down until the last act. True, there are too many over-the-top chase/fight scenes that go on for too long, but that’s true of just about every Hollywood CGI extravaganza these days. Another common fault is showing us many gorgeous fantasy vistas crammed full of amazing detail, only to whisk them away after 2 or 3 seconds. Would it kill the Entertainment Complex to let us drink in the detail for another 3 or 4 seconds? Apparently, yes.

On the other hand, Schager sounds like too many American critics when he complains about “the monotony of lengthy chats about royal lineage, intergalactic economies, and other fairy tale nonsense” and “dialogue equally defined by ridiculously fanciful terms and leaden exposition.” How a filmmaker is supposed to present a rich fantasy world without fanciful terms or exposition is beyond me, and I’m getting tired of the stubborn inability of even educated and intelligent viewers like Schager to sit still and listen for a few minutes.

Besides, Schager’s “fairy tale nonsense” has a political edge that I think works in in the Wachowskis’ favor. For the villains are super rich one-percenters that harvest whole planets full of human beings in order to produce a fountain of youth serum. Such a cruel economy is an all too believable foundation for the deceit and the violence that fuels the movie, and the villains are not the problem. The problem comes with the heroine, and I’ll take brief walk through the complicated plot, spoilers included, to explain why.

Poor Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is a maid in Chicago who spends her time cleaning other people’s toilets. Her mom is great (she left Russia after house robbers murdered Jupiter’s father), but her family is obnoxiously uncouth, as only an extended ethnic family can be. And she doesn’t have a boyfriend. Not surprisingly, she hates her life. Happily, she is saved from this tedious hell when space aliens attempt to assassinate her: because she is then rescued by a handsome space bounty hunter named Caine Wise (played by dreamy Channing Tatum, who looks great. Even with pointy ears.) Through him, she learns that she is the exact genetic double, a “recurrence,” of a recently murdered space queen. As such, she is entitled to inherit said space queen’s property, which includes the valuable “estate” that is the planet earth. The problem with this rags to riches development is that the queen’s oldest son has no intention of letting Jupiter get her grubby little hands on all the goodies he murdered mommy for. (Oops – spoiler alert.) His name is Balem Abrasax, and he’s played full-out by Eddie Redmayne in a much derided performance that I actually enjoyed.


Caine Wise. Part man, part wolf. All hunk!

Caine saves Jupiter from death again and again, and in the process kills or wounds about 332 opponents. So Jupiter falls in love with him. Usually I gag at this sort of thing, but I have a big crush on Channing, so I’m just as guilty as Jupiter here. I’m also OK with the fact that Jupiter is not an expert kung-fu warrior, so she needs to be rescued when professional killers are sent after her. Where I do have a problem is that she is such an aw shucks, down-home, just-plain-folks kind of girl that the big picture implications of her changed estate never dawn on her. All she can think about is Caine’s apparent coldness, so she has no brain room left for something as abstract as the fate of the planet earth. The tragic irony here is that he, of course, is in love with her. Only now that she’s a member of the power elite of the universe, how can he, a lowly bounty hunter, hope to win her heart? He can’t, and so he blows her off when she throws herself at him.

After many, many chase scenes, and an amusing satire on bureaucratic red tape, Jupiter officially claims title to her property. But she is then faced with a cruel choice, because Balem kidnaps her horrid family and threatens to murder them if she doesn’t turn over the property to him. At this point she knows what people like Balem do to the planets they own – so she races off, alone, to his citadel in Jupiter’s red spot. Surrounded by his henchmen and completely in his power, she is about to sign over her inheritance, when it finally dawns on her that he will harvest the entire population of earth to process more eternal youth serum. I’m happy to say that she then refuses, and is rescued once more by Caine. Belam falls off an exploding space platform and (probably) dies.

Now we come to the big, happy finish where a revitalized Jupiter realizes she actually enjoys cleaning other people’s toilets! I kid you not, she goes back to her old life. (I’m all for celebrating the worth of blue-collar labor, but really?) Her awful extended family seems to have been replaced by space clones, and they are now thoughtful and considerate. Even better, she now has a boyfriend – because Caine isn’t blowing her off anymore! We close with them light-heartedly zooming around the skyscrapers of Chicago using hyper-advanced space technology.

Wait, doesn’t that mean that thousands of office workers will see them zooming around? Yes it does, but earlier in the movie we learned that the super advanced space humans that “own” the earth routinely erase our memories whenever we witness their hyper-advanced technology. And now Jupiter owns the earth, so…Is this kind of twisted power play the real reason she smiles when she cleans the toilets of the rich? Your guess is as good as mine. But it’s right here that Jupiter Ascending finally lost me.

Hollywood giveth with one hand, and it taketh away with another. All the class-conscious political savvy of the set up is undermined by making Jupiter Jones such a dim bulb. This movie was planned as the beginning of a franchise, so maybe they delayed giving her an intellectual awakening for a future installment. Ditto any temptations or dark emotions. And so Jupiter as a character is dramatically inert, and her movie gets sucked into a gravity well of dopey sentimentality.

Ah, but she snags that dreamy boyfriend, and this is enough to win the movie at least some fans. As reports, “Jupiter Ascending” has broken new ground by becoming the first cult classic sci-fi film that will be buoyed into infamy by young women… Every woman who ever wrote herself into her favorite universe via fanfic, every girl who created an amnesiac elven vampire princess and role-played in a chat room, every chick who ever wanted a blaster by her side and a submissive werewolf boyfriend at her back, every one of them whispered, “Finally. It is our time.” – Well, I wish they’d hold out for a better heroine, but it could be worse. Caine could be like the entitled billionaire “hero” in Fifty Shades of Grey.


One’s a dreamboat. The other’s a villain.

Postscript: It would have been nice if at least one (non-villain) character in Jupiter Ascending was gay.

A Farewell To Miracles

This is my last entry on Chris Stewart and Ted Stewart’s book The Miracle of Freedom: 7 Tipping Points that Saved the World.

The Final Countdown

Having given a blog entry to each of the first 3 miracles, I’ll wrap up this book review by treating the final 4 with an overview. They are:

        4. The Battle of Poiters
        5. The Mongols Decision not to invade Europe
        6. The Old World colonizes the New World
        7. The Battle of Britain

I am in complete agreement with the authors that Great Britain’s stand against Hitler’s Germany is something to celebrate. I’m also happy that the Mongols decided to call off their invasion of Europe in the 1240’s, so I won’t comment on these chapters. I would, however, like to look a bit at the remaining two miracles.

Brother Religions

The Battle of Poiters in AD 732 is the one that “preserved a Christian Europe” by halting an Islamic conquest of the continent. No argument from me on the military importance of this battle, but let’s look at the authors’ notes on why this was important for the concepts of freedom and democracy.

They acknowledge that the Islamic world initially “led the world in technological and cultural advances.” Which is true. Then they note that it seemed to “freeze” and fall behind the west. Why? They propose a list of interesting reasons:

  1. Fundamentalist Islam defined law as rules coming down from God, not something created by men.
  2. Therefore, there was no separation of church and state.
  3. Personal freedom, including the right to protest an unjust law, was not promoted. After all, if laws come from God, how could a good Muslim protest them?
  4. As the Islamic empires grew prosperous, the religion’s liberal views about the virtue of equality gave way to an elitism that favored the rich and powerful.
  5. The lack of secular education stifled innovation.

This was oh so very different from the Christian West because that part of the world “forged ahead in the sciences, technology, cultural advancements, and in the advancements in religious thought that led to the concepts of personal freedom and self-government.” No sirs, even according to your own book, the concepts of personal freedom and self-government were inventions of Pagan Greece. What it avoids is discussing how the Christian church often tried to stifle them. It’s fascinating, and depressing, how the authors can criticize the authoritarian nature of monotheism in Islam, yet celebrate that very thing in their own Christian faith.

The Joy of Empire

The most gobsmacking chapter in the book is one that tries to paint Europe’s invasion and colonization of the New World as a happy victory for personal freedom. The havoc wrought on the native peoples by the European invasion has troubled my own mind since grade school. I was studying history in the 4th grade when a light bulb went on over my head: the cowboys weren’t the good guys, they were the bad guys! Not an easy thing to live with for Euro-Americans. I remember explaining this unease to a fellow college student. He was a super sweet guy from Colorado, and he was completely untroubled. “Well it’s better than us living in some hell-hole in Europe!” he exclaimed.

The Stewarts, who hail from Utah, aren’t quite that simplistic. They posit that the conquest of the New World gave Europe the confidence and riches necessary to create a powerful and advanced civilization. That the conquest provided Europe with treasure and pride is impossible to argue with. That this advanced the concepts of personal freedom is ridiculous – until we come to the English colonists who dreamed up an independent and democratic nation. And even here it’s a complicated thing. For this nation, founded on the idea that “all men are created equal” was partly a slave state itself until the incomplete victory that was the Civil War. Amazingly, Sherman’s March, a brutal military campaign that smashed a slave state, is not one of the 7 miracles of freedom.

Living With Original Sin

At it’s core, this book isn’t history, but a founding myth that seeks to erase the moral stain left by the violence, theft, and enslavement that came with the New World conquest. None of that bad stuff really counted, the authors imply, because it was committed by Christians who valued personal freedom – and with the spoils of New World empire we were able to spread our enlightened values across the globe! Hurray for us.

I guess that’s the big challenge for secular humanists. We need to combat the narcotic appeal of tribal chauvinism with an inspiring vision of our own. How by seeing the truth about ourselves and our pasts, we can build a more just society.

To be continued…